Actual Historians Answer Questions About Russia And Vladimir Putin

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Vote up the most eye-opening answers to questions about Putin and Russia.

Vladimir Putin is the subject of much emotional debate, internationally and within his own country. Why did Putin attack Ukraine? What's the history between Russia and Ukraine? How did Putin ascend to power?

There's a lot to dig into, and no doubt qualified historians would be the best ones to shed light on it all. Luckily, one great place to find credentialed historians more than willing to offer their time is Reddit's "Ask Historians" community, where people go to get some solid answers. Reading answers from the historians who know their Bolsheviks from their Mensheviks gives us a better understanding of events in the region. 

Having an in-depth understanding of a particular region or situation can add to your knowledge about what's truly going on, and how it may end up shaping the future of the world. 


  • Redditor u/braujo asked:

    How did Putin go from a KGB agent to the undisputable leader of Russia, the biggest country on the planet?

    Redditor u/kaiser_matias answered:

    Putin joined the KGB in 1975, and in 1985, he was posted to their office in Dresden, East Germany, where he stayed until 1990 when East Germany ceased to exist. He returned to Leningrad (his hometown; now Saint Petersburg) and started working with Anatoli Sobchuk, who was the mayor of the city. Working as an international advisor, Putin took a leading role in ensuring the city stayed stocked with basic foodstuffs and other materials, in a time when the USSR was facing massive shortages. There are rumors that Putin took illegal measures at this time to both ensure delivery and keep himself well-off, and he was investigated by a branch of the city, but nothing has ever been confirmed (a recurring theme in the life of Putin).

    Putin stayed in city politics until the mid-'90s when he started working for the federal party led by the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Sobchak lost the 1996 mayoral election, and Putin left his posts with him. He was hired by a branch of the federal government, the Presidential Property Management Division, and moved to Moscow. In this position, he was responsible for maintaining government properties, both within Russia and abroad (like embassies and so on). He also oversaw the transfer of Communist Party properties to the state.

    President [Boris] Yeltsin appointed Putin to his staff in 1997, and in 1998 he was named head of the FSB (the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB). It was from this position that Putin moved on to become a Deputy Prime Minister in 1999, and subsequently Prime Minister and ultimately President, taking office on December 31, 1999.

    Redditor u/Lithium2011 added: 

    The main role in his promotion was played by Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin's son-in-law. Yeltsin and his closest associates were worried that after Yeltsin all the progress on the way to democracy would be lost. And maybe they were worried about their future fates also. Yeltsin as a politician wasn't in a good shape, he almost lost his presidential election in 1996 (and some say that he lost it, but it's quite hard to say if it's true or not). Anyway, all these years there was a fear of communists' comeback, so Yeltsin's associates (sometimes this group of people is called Family, Семья) wanted to have a good successor. The one who wasn't communist, the one who owes them a lot, the one who wouldn't betray them. They wanted guarantees.

    Putin at that time seemed for them as a good choice. He believed in democracy, he had his code of honor, he was loyal to them. And he owed them a lot. So, he was chosen not because he was an influential politic with a lot of connections or was a rich guy with a lot of money and power. He was chosen because he wasn't.

    130 votes
  • 2
    37 VOTES

    Why Is Russia Called The Russian Federation?

    Redditor u/trooper1139 asked:

    From my personal understanding, Russia in 1991 went from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the "Russian Federation". However, my research does not really make it clear who came up with the name or if the concept existed as [an] idea years prior among the hearts and minds of White émigré. And my research found nothing on Russian anti-communists talking about forging a Russian Federation, Not in any poem, literature, or statements from N.T.S or any Russian organizations that sought to bring down the communist system. So I guess my question is why is Russia called the Russian Federation and not the Russian Republic?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Kochevnik81:

    The Russian Federation is called [that] because it is a federal republic, but that's a bit of a circular answer so I will provide some further background. I'll try to do a very brief rundown of Russian constitutional structure and nationality policy (they're related) from 1917 to now.

    First I'll note that there actually never was a "Russian Soviet Socialist Republic". The entity that the Russian Federation is actually descended from is a mouthful that was known as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (hereafter RSFSR because even I get the name mixed up).

    As such, the 1918 constitution asserted:

    The Russian Soviet Republic is organized on the basis of a free union of free nations, as a federation of soviet national republics.

    But there were parts of the former Russian Empire that were not part of the RSFSR, namely Byelorussia, Ukraine, and the Caucasian countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Through the Russian Civil War, these republics ended up under Bolshevik control by 1921 but were still formally independent countries, whose ruling parties happened to be sections of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, and whose foreign relations operated out of Russian embassies. There was some internal debate over how to reorganize matters. Stalin favored absorbing these republics directly into the RSFSR, but Lenin opposed this, and his view prevailed. This resulted in the 1922 Union Treaty which established the USSR.

    The USSR then was actually a federation of federations: the member states were the RSFSR (a federation), the Transcaucasian SSR (which was a federation of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), and the Byelorussian SSR and Ukrainian SSR, which weren't federations. A constitution for this union was enacted in 1924, with newer ones in 1936 and 1977. The RSFSR itself got a new constitution in 1937 and again in 1978 to mirror the changes to the Soviet constitution. Of particular note in the 1977 Soviet constitution is the right of member states to secede from the Union, which was pretty much an unlikely and empty right as long as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union maintained its constitutionally-guaranteed monopoly on power across the USSR.

    [Fast forwarding to the end] Gorbachev enacted a series of ever more radical reforms in an attempt to revive the Soviet economy and enforce greater accountability among the Communist Party elite. Mirror changes were made at the republican level, which ultimately saw the creation of a Russian Presidency and the popular election of Boris Yeltsin to that office in 1991. As a new constitutional order was negotiated in 1990 and early 1991, the Soviet Republics declared "sovereignty" in a so-called "war of laws." A new treaty, replacing the 1922 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with a "Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics" was to be signed and enacted in August 1991, and Russia was recognized as the legal successor to the USSR.

    However, the RSFSR technically did not cease to exist along with the USSR. It had been renamed in December 1991 to the Russian Federation, removing the old and unfashionable soviet and socialist bits, but otherwise keeping the 1978 constitution, albeit with heavy amendments.

    [So] the Russian Federation is the direct continuation of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, established in 1918. This federal system was often more formal window dressing than actual practice but was considered (especially by Lenin) as a very important way to address nationalities policy. In a lot of ways, the Russian federal structure in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods is more like the British federal structure than, say, the US one, namely that it is asymmetric (not all federal subjects get the same rights or [are] autonomous) and it's devolved (the federal subjects tend to get powers given to them by the central government, and this can change based on the policies and relative power of that government).

    37 votes
  • Redditor u/JoshtheFish0rman asked:

    One of the things I hate about the news is they seldom if ever, provide historical context for global conflicts, especially when actual violence is involved. Be it Israel and Palestine, Iran and the U.S., or more recently, Russia and Ukraine, the historical context of said conflict is often ignored when it could provide the public with a deeper understanding of its significance, consequences, and pragmatic solution. That being said, I am extremely curious about the historical context and origins of Russia/Putin's interest in Ukraine. Could anyone explain the historical context of this modern conflict to me, or provide a link to an article that would?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/boblucas69

    The source of the conflict largely stems from whether Ukrainians are a distinct people and whether they have legitimacy over the territory they control. Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians all trace their origins back to the medieval Kyivan Rus (also known as Kievan Rus) where an old version of their contemporary languages was spoken. Russians tend to identify Kyivan Rus as exclusively Russian while any sort of nationhood and identity didn't exist in the medieval period.

    Over the following centuries after the collapse of the Rus, the lands of parts of contemporary Ukraine and Russia were controlled by different states. For Ukrainians, the 17th century Cossack revolt against Poland led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky was seen as the first proto-Ukrainian state which would get incorporated into the Russian empire by the 18th century.

    By the 19th century Russian as well as Ukrainian culture and identity emerged as literary languages were formulated. The status of Ukrainian [language and culture] though proved contentious among Russian intellectuals who often considered Ukrainian a mere dialect. [So] the Ukrainian language was heavily censored or even banned within the Russian Empire.

    In the 20th century, the political idea of Ukraine as a distinct political state separate from Russia began to emerge and a series of short-lived states even existed around the time of the Russian revolution. The ethnic composition of what is Ukraine was at the time complicated. Typically ethnic Ukrainians dominated the countryside while the cities tended to be a mix of Russians, Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians who were typically in the minority. With the Soviet Union, and in particular WW2, this changed as the Jewish population was annihilated and the Polish population in the west was forcibly relocated. Hence the cities, especially in the East and South of Ukraine, became dominantly Russian speaking either from Ukrainians assimilating or from ethnic Russians that moved from Russia to work in the booming Ukrainian factories/mines/ports.

    [After the fall of the USSR] Ukraine achieved independence in 1991 in a referendum where over 80% in every region, except Crimea where it was 55%, voted for independence from the USSR. Despite this, the direction and identity of the country were deeply split between the East and West of the country with the west being more nationalist and wanting to associate with Europe and the east desiring closer relations with Russia.

    Russians make various claims about the status of Ukraine today. At the most extreme there's the complete denial of Ukrainian identity. Another view is that certain parts of Ukraine aren't really Ukrainian and are only a part of Ukraine due to an accident of history (resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union). Crimea and the Donbas are the principal Russian examples, but the claims can extend further to include Kharkiv, Odesa, or even Kyiv as being genuinely Russian. Russian nationalists even claim there's a cultural genocide being committed against ethnic Russians in the east for which Russia must intervene to save.

    [But] Ukrainian identity after the Maidan revolution and the war in Donbas has intensified throughout the country. Even many of those who are primarily Russian speakers and live in the east still identify as Ukrainian and have no desire for Russia to save them from 'genocide', [even as the] Russian language continues to be freely spoken and is still the dominant language in [areas like] Kyiv.

    174 votes
  • Redditor u/engapol123 asked:

    Why was Poland's transition to capitalism so much more effective than Russia's in the '90s?

    An excerpt from Redditor u/Kochevnik81

    We need to recognize that Russia and Poland, despite being Slavic countries that are neighbors, are in many ways very different from one another. Even today, Russia has over a hundred million more people than Poland does. Poland is a medium-sized country in Central Europe, with less than 40 million people. It’s also worth remembering that while we’re discussing “Russia”, such a country as we understand it today didn’t come into being until 1991 – before that time, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic was just one republic among 14 others in the Soviet Union. Russia was by far the largest republic, with about half the Soviet population, and was the “center” of the Soviet government and party, but in a lot of ways Russia the republic was disadvantaged in the asymmetrical Soviet setup.

    Much of the economic development in the Russian Empire had been state-owned or state-controlled and had often relied on importing foreign engineers and specialists for big industrial projects, and the tsarist state bank loaned money preferentially to industrialists for purposes strategic to the government. Poland pre-1918 was either part of the Russian, German or Austrian Empires, and had different experiences under each. World War II was devastating to both countries, so I will pass over that briefly. But the bottom line is that Russia (as part of the USSR) had been under communist rule for some 80 years, while Poland had been under communist rule for some 45 years. So, building a market economy in Russia meant largely attempting to build something from scratch, while for Poland it meant returning something that was remembered by many Poles from the prewar era.

    Geopolitically, it’s also worth noting that Poland and Russia in the 1990s were dealing with very different situations. The end of the Cold War meant for Poland the departure of occupying Soviet military forces. For Russia, it meant that those (former) Soviet military forces evacuated from Central and Eastern Europe had to be disposed of, and military personnel resettled and housed at cost for the Russian government.

    Both Poland and Russia when through [an] economic decline in the early 1990s. But Poland was in dire economic straights and undertaking economic reforms even in the later communist years, and subsequently was able to put public finances and social benefits into workable order in a stable political system. The Soviet Union was able to coast on oil revenues until the economy disintegrated in the economic and political chaos of the Gorbachev reforms. The political order wasn’t resolved until 1993, and even after then politics was mostly between a strong presidency and an economic elite, with little input or influence from other parts of society. After severe economic decline and rebuilding a market economy from scratch (in a way Poland didn’t need to do), Russia recovered but has always had different priorities as a military power from a smaller and more regionally-integrated Poland.

    100 votes
  • 5
    44 VOTES

    When Did Putin Appear On The US International Radars?

    Redditor u/Pineapple__Jews asked:

    Before being elected President, Vladimir Putin spent more than a decade in the KGB, and then, following the collapse of the USSR, worked his way up in politics. At what point would he have popped up on the United States government's radar, and what did they think of him as his power increased?

    Redditor u/The_Alaskan answered:

    Good question, and unfortunately, it can't be answered very well here since most of the critical years of Putin's career are within 20 years of the present. The first mention of Putin in the New York Times, for example, is on April 27, 1992, and the next doesn't come until Nov. 21, 1998, a few months after he became head of the Russian Federal Security Bureau. (Incidentally, that story features an FSB colonel who, after defecting, would be assassinated by a Russian agent ─ likely on Putin's orders.)

    The CIA's FOIA reading room doesn't contain any mentions of Putin before 2000, and the FBI's FOIA reading room contains a similar lack of information. The Wikileaks diplomatic cable archive contains nothing before 2000. The Chronicling America newspaper archive run by the Library of Congress is unhelpful, as is Google's newspaper archive, and NewsBank contains nothing useful. (There is, however, a fascinating 1991 trip diary by David C. Turnley of Knight-Ridder News Service that features a brief quote from "[St. Petersburg] mayoral aide Vladimir Putin".)

    That leaves us with speculation and educated guess, so let's work with that. Putin was born in 1952 and lived what was a largely uneventful early life in Leningrad. He was captivated by stories of Russian intelligence agents, however, and after he graduated from Leningrad State University in 1975, he joined the KGB. To this point, he likely would have been invisible to the state agencies of the United States, just as any ordinary American citizen would have been invisible to Soviet intelligence.

    After he completed his training, however, he was assigned to KGB offices in his hometown and assigned to monitor foreigners visiting Leningrad. It's entirely possible that the U.S. identified him at this point as a known KGB agent, but it's just as possible that they did not. Putin would have been an entry-level officer at this point, barely distinguishable from an office drone.

    After a few years of this work, Putin was reassigned to Moscow and training at the KGB's foreign intelligence training center. Putin already spoke fluent (or near-fluent) German, and so he was shipped off to Dresden, in East Germany, working there from 1985 to the collapse of East Germany. It's not entirely clear what Putin's mission in Dresden was, though it appears to have been multi-faceted. The Stasi archives, covered in this fascinating BBC look at Putin, show that Putin's duties included such things as mundane as arranging for a telephone hookup to a German informer. Putin, in effect, was tech support.

    It's also possible he was doing more interesting things. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan visited Moscow. Presidential photographer Pete Souza took this picture of Reagan shaking hands with Soviet tourists in Red Square. At the far left side of the photo is a man who looks remarkably like Putin, and Souza has identified him as Putin. He also says that a Secret Service agent told him at the time that everyone Reagan met in Red Square was a Soviet agent, explaining why everyone asked Regan about American human rights abuses.

    It seems far-fetched that Putin would have been recalled from Dresden to Moscow just as an extra hand to cover a presidential visit. It also seems, based on photographs in the Stasi archives, that Putin was already losing his hair in 1988, and this man has a much fuller head of hair. Putin's Dresden experience may have brought him to the attention of U.S. intelligence agencies. In 1989, as East Germany collapsed, Putin intervened with a pistol to prevent demonstrators from attacking the KGB offices there. After the Soviet withdrawal, Putin and his then-wife drove back to Leningrad with a 20-year-old East German washing machine in their car ─ a parting gift from friends.

    Back in Leningrad ─ then in transition to St. Petersburg amid the end of the Soviet Union ─ Putin was somewhat adrift. According to his former wife, he toyed with becoming a taxi driver. Instead, he fell in with his former college professor, Anatoly Sobchak, becoming an aide in 1990. In 1996, after the defeat of Sobchak in the municipal elections, he was called to Moscow and federal service, beginning his rise to the top.

    44 votes
  • 6
    64 VOTES

    What’s The Story Behind The 1999 Russian Apartment Bombing That Put Putin In The Spotlight?

    Redditor u/AeneasFelix asked:

    Russian apartment bombings, 1999: I have read that the "apartment bombings" that occurred between September 4-16, 1999, may have been orchestrated by the Russian government. Is this a theory supported by evidence or a conspiracy-like those surrounding 9/11, etc.?

    Redditor u/Kochevnik81 answered:

    The answer has to do with Chechnya, so it might help to provide some background there. For a very brief rundown of Chechen history in the 20th century - Chechens had been combined with the neighboring Ingush people in a Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic as a part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the early Soviet period. During the Second World War, in 1944, the Chechens were deported en masse from this area by the NKVD for alleged collaboration with invading Axis forces (about six other ethnic groups in the Caucasus region were deported in related operations), causing mass deaths, and the autonomous republic was abolished.

    In 1956, with general de-Stalinization, the Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland from internal exile, and the autonomous republic was re-established. When the USSR began to dissolve in 1990, the Chechen Autonomous Republic behaved independently, declaring sovereignty in 1990, electing former Soviet Air Force Major General Dzhokar Dudayev president in 1991, and declaring unilateral independence on November 2, 1991.

    Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused to recognize this independence. A standoff between Russia and Chechnya ensued over the next few years, as Dudayev slowly lost control of Chechnya itself and the republic increasingly saw internal factional fighting and a flourishing of organized crime. Yeltsin launched a full-scale invasion of Chechnya in December 1994 - the First Chechen War, which saw a bloody battle to take control of the capital, Grozny, but that also saw continued guerrilla resistance to the Russian military, as well as tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Ultimately peace accords were signed in 1996-1997 that granted a more-or-less de facto independence to Chechnya.

    However, war-torn Chechnya was even less able to provide coherent peace and stability within its borders, and many armed groups proliferated, fighting with one another and with the Republican leaders. On August 7, 1999, Shamil Basayev, a local Islamist warlord, along with Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab led forces into neighboring Dagestan (an autonomous North Caucasian republic in the Russian Federation) to spark a separatist revolt there and were counterattacked by Russian security forces. This conflict caused hundreds of casualties [by September 1999]. In the meantime, Director of the FSB Vladimir Putin had been appointed as Acting Prime Minister on August 9 and had been confirmed in that office by the Russian Duma a week later.

    Now, the connection to the apartment bombings is that starting on August 31 and continuing into September there were a spate of bombings and defused bombs in Moscow and the North Caucasus region, especially Dagestan, with the deadliest bombing occurring in an eight-story Moscow apartment building on September 13, killing 119 people. Specifically, the incidents were bombs at a Moscow shopping mall on August 31 (1 killed, 40 injured), a car bomb in Bukyansk, Dagestan (64 killed, 133 injured), a bomb at a Moscow apartment building on September 9 (106 killed, 249 injured), the September 13 bombing, a truck bomb in Volgodonsk (17 killed, 69 injured), and then the Ryazan foiled bombing on September 22.

    About 300 people were killed altogether - the Ryazan bomb is the most notorious and controversial but didn't kill anyone. Anonymous callers called Russian news agencies and claimed responsibility for these bombings as retaliation for the Russian military offensive in Dagestan, and in one case claiming membership in an otherwise unknown "Liberation Army of Dagestan". Who these individuals remained murky, and Basayev denied any connection to them, claiming it was Dagestanis, not Chechens. One can decide whether or not to believe Basayev, but it's worth pointing out that by 1999 he had already been responsible for such terrorist attacks as the Budyonnovsk Hospital Hostage Crisis in 1995, that ultimately had led to the death of 140 civilians.

    The "FSB is behind the bombings" theory is that these were false flag operations: namely, that the FSB orchestrated the bombings as a casus belli to turn Russian public opinion against Northern Caucasian insurgents and in favor of a full-scale second invasion of Chechnya; as it turned out, a land invasion was launched on October 1, beginning the Second Chechen War (which officially ended in 2009).

    The Second Chechen War and his perceived strong leadership of it saw Putin go from a relative unknown in Russian public opinion (a 31% Approval, 33% Disapproval, 36% No Opinion) in August 1999 to an extremely popular Prime Minister, with a 65% approval rating in October of that year (his approval rating has never gone below this since). The military operation was cast as an anti-terrorist one, with Putin (in)famously promising in a September 1999 televised press conference: "We are going to pursue terrorists everywhere. If they are in the airport, we will pursue them in the airport. And if we capture them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse. The issue has been resolved once and for all”."

    With Yeltsin's December 31, 1999, resignation of the Presidency in favor of Putin, and his convincing win in the Presidential election's first round of voting the following March, the idea is that Putin orchestrated the bombings to rally Russian public opinion for a new invasion of Chechnya to cement his hold on power. I will try to not soapbox here, so let me just be clear that: all claims of "Putin/the FSB is behind the bombings" have come from public opponents of Putin, as mentioned in the answer above, but as far as I am aware of, no concrete evidence besides that already mentioned has been given for FSB involvement in the bombings.

    For what it's worth, Russian journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who have reported on Russian intelligence services and are critical of the Russian government, consider the Ryazan incident to be an actual FSB training operation that was badly bungled to the point of confusing the public to the point of paranoia (as they describe in Russia's New Nobility). 

    64 votes